CJ invited me to listen to "Transition" at his Los Angeles area recording studio. CJ hit play and left the room as I sat by myself in the prime seat in the Control Room. I sat undisturbed sans cell phone and any other exterior noise. I can't remember the last time I listened to an entire CD straight through without ANY disturbance for even a second. Wow, was I in for a treat as the thought never crossed my mind to skip any part of any song. I cannot wait for the release date so I can purchase my own copy of this gem. This CD has something for everyone. The title track is an epic number. "Once Again" with fantastic interplay between CJ and Luke and "Smile" with the Jeff Beck like guitar work stood out for me as stellar tracks.
Reggie: I just listened to "Transition" in it's entirety in your Studio. Let me ask you about a couple of tracks and then some general questions about your work on this project. "Transition" the title track starts and ends with Luke's unmistakable signature guitar sound. Out of all the guitar sounds he gets that sound to me is just Luke.
CJ: "And that's the sound I fell in love with when I first listened to Steve. It's that soaring, melodic, beautiful, not too notey, lyrical like a singer sound. I agree it really captures 'his thing'."
Reggie: "Once Again". The back and forth sounds between you and Luke is brilliant!
CJ: "That's literally us the first time. First time our fingers hit. It's the first time we sat down to do it. That's what you hear now. It's not like we did it and you heard it again or we recreated it again. It's us playing it for the first time. I had this part and he said 'that's really cool'. Then he played a part and I said 'that's really cool' and we just recorded it. With the last record I kind of came in halfway through. This one we started together. I ALWAYS had everything ready to record before he got here. Whenever we were jamming or messing around it was being recorded. So a lot of what you hear on the record are the gems that were created on the spot which I think is very important.
Reggie: Any favorites tracks for you on this CD?
CJ: "Oh, boy! That's a tough one. I don't think so. I love "Transition". I love what we did on the bridge on that one. A kind of instrumental burner. Like you said it starts with that beautiful lyrical piece. I kind of came up with this 7/8 riff. Kind of a burn riff. We knew Tal (Wilkenfeld) was going to play that immediately. But then in the middle we went to this kind of Yes/Genesis place. It's totally out of left field. You're totally not expecting it. That's one of my favorite things on the record. I love "Judgment Day". I love how it starts. His solo is amazing as is his solo on "Transition". Those two stuck out. I would go the other way. There's not one dog on it. There's not one where I cringe when I listen to it. They all sound good. They all have their own identity."
Reggie: You told me to call you back into the Control Room if I wanted to skip any of the Record and I didn't need to.
CJ: "I was waiting! We wanted to keep everybody's interest. It's not like we copied and pasted choruses. Everything is kind of organic in that sense. There is a lot of atmospheric, cinematic stuff that we both love. We've had many discussions about production. We both love production. I think most people love production. The only people who don't like production are Record Labels who have to pay for it because it takes time to make good records. My line to Luke, and he says he always gets asked about it. If somebody asks you what their definition of too much production is. Ask them if they think Beethoven is overproduced. Because that's 90 musicians playing at once. From the beginning we set out to make a big sounding, rich production. All the greatest records of all time that we love were made that way. Sgt. Pepper, Fleetwood Mac Rumors, Dark Side of the Moon, Thriller. Those are all huge production records. Nothing wrong with that. It somehow got a bad name that you have to go out as a band and jam in a room. That's not how records are made, especially not the ones we all love."
Reggie: I spent a day in the studio with you and Luke. Talk about your working relationship with Luke.
CJ: "Well first of all both of our backgrounds as studio musicians are: we are really fast. We are really fast at whipping things together. That feeling of working with someone who's as fast if not faster than you is very liberating. There's nothing worse than working with someone who is slow and has to double think. They're saying 'I don't know about that.' You have this great goose bumpy moment and then there's this guy putting the brakes on. Now we're heading up the hill with a trailer hooked up to the back of the Porsche. We are just flying when we go. It's great. We get so many ideas out. Another great thing is that Steve and I were born two weeks apart. We both grew up with the same TV shows, we have the same references and we love the same music. Like I mentioned Yes, Gentle Giant, Genesis, Pink Floyd and Weather Report. There's a lot of Weather Report stuff that we tapped into. It's a big thing that we have the same references. Another huge thing is that I was kind of a Toto scholar. I was back in Michigan when I first heard Toto. I was like 'who the fuck are these guys?' I knew these guys were incredible players and I learned all the parts. We played them in our bands. I learned a lot about Steve. I probably know more about Steve than he knows about himself. That gives me a good perspective working with him."
Reggie: You recorded at your studio here and at the Steakhouse. What's the mindset and what are the differences between the two studios?
CJ: "Ya, there's a huge difference. I have a great Control Room here. It's a small studio but the Control Room is superb. It's a true designed Control Room, very comfortable. There's no receptionist, no hot tub. It's just Steve and I sitting here, no infestation. I don't have a big console here so I don't do drums. We go to the Steakhouse for that. They have a beautiful setup for that there. If you're going to have a bunch of people hanging out you're not going to want to do it here."
Reggie: You also worked with Ross Hogarth on this project. He recently worked on one of the most long awaited rock records in years the latest Van Halen record. What was his role on this record?
CJ: "Ya, he's a monster engineer. As much as I do the mix on these records with Steve, I recorded all the vocals, all the guitars. I do all the editing. I am very hands on that way. I would never...... ever try and record drums. That is something that's a fine art. Something that I would never profess to know anything about. So we brought Ross in. He got the big fat tone. He brought his equipment in. He was great. He helped us comp things together. He was very valuable."
Reggie: You have three fantastic but very different drummers on this record in Chad Smith, Gregg Bissonette and Toss Panos. Do you immediately know who's going to play on each song?
CJ: "Yes. Immediately. We said we have to sit down and figure out who's playing on what. We said 'let's do that next Monday.' We sat down and went down the set list. Five minutes later we knew. We knew, it was obvious. You listen to "Transition" and it had Tal's name all over it. "Right the Wrong", you listen to Chad's playing on 'Right the Wrong' and what a terror! He's fun to watch too!"
Reggie: When I spent the day in the studio here with you on this project Luke, John Pierce and Kristina Helene were here. I got here at 1pm and you guys had already been working before I got here. The night ended at 10pm after dinner. Even at dinner you are still talking about the project past, present and future. My point is that even though this is work you guys are having fun telling stories, jokes and reminiscing. You are making fun of each other. Pierce was making fun of himself. It's like a family reunion/work day. Talk about that really neat atmosphere when you're working.
CJ: "A big part of playing is getting that comfort in the room. When somebody tells a story you get some laughs so you're in the mood for when the red light goes on. There are times when we really concentrate without stopping for three hours. But a lot of the time we'll stop to tell stories to each other. It's a way of pulling ourselves out of the game for a minute and getting a little more gas in the tank and then hitting it again. Nothing like laughter. In the tribe everybody's funny. What is it about musicians? They're ALL funny!"
Reggie: There's so much down time in this business. On the bus, in the studio, at the hotel and at the venue before and after the gig.
CJ: "If you don't have a sense of humor in this business then you're not going to last because it's brutal. It can be brutal at times."
Reggie: When people hear the name Steve Lukather a lot of them think guitar, guitar, guitar. Sitting here today listening to this record there is much more. There are great songs, great vocals a great vibe. Much more than just guitar.
CJ: "There are messages, ballads, great lyrics. People think he's going to do a Satriani or Steve Vai record. Those are GREAT records and those guys are GREAT! Steve is obviously more of an artist/songwriter, singer/songwriter. And then he has to be able to pull that guitar out and play like that. Oh my God! I think someone once asked Eddie Van Halen 'what's it like to be the World's greatest guitar player' and Eddie said 'I don't know. Go ask Steve Lukather.' That says it all. He's a freak! Another fun thing that is great is that I sit at my keyboard in the studio with the speakers right there. I use Logic in front of me. Then I have this bar stool where Steve sits behind me like we're riding a motorcycle. That's how we record. He taps me on the shoulder when he wants me to stop. We're really close and we're really linked when we're doing stuff. He's not in some booth in another room. We do all the vocals within two feet from me. It's a very intimate thing. I hope you can feel that on the record."
Reggie: When you work in the Studio like you said the keyboards are directly in front of you at all times. You speak to people through your keyboards instead of just talking. I don't know or read music like you guys but when you spoke through your keyboards I understood it as opposed to talking to me where I probably wouldn't have.
CJ: "Right, it just becomes a second language. The worst thing in the World is talking about music. Frank Zappa said 'writing about music is like dancing about architecture'. What better way to convey an idea than to just play it!"
Reggie: Another thing I've noticed having been in the Studio with Luke a few times is how well he hears things that sometimes no one else hears. You can have seasoned life long musicians in the studio with Luke and he hears something on the first playback no one else hears. Then after the second playback and he's already pointed out what he heard everyone else hears it the second time.
CJ: "Oh, absolutely! No, nothing gets by him. He doesn't miss anything. We're both pretty diligent about that shit. One of the reasons I've been able to mix this stuff is because of his ears. So I have to give him a lot of credit for that."
Reggie: I know Luke's schedule with his solo band, G3, Ringo All Starrs, Toto, Rock Meets Classic among other things. I know some of your schedule through your Facebook page. How did you guys manage to get this record done?
CJ: "I think I did four or five albums in that amount of time. I did a Tears For Fears Tour. One of the things is as a producer my goal is to get Steve out of the here. I don't mean that in a bad way. I want his time in here to be concentrated. Come in here and blow your solo. Come in here and sing the lead vocal. I'll comp that and put it together. When he was in here we recoded a lot of stuff, a lot of stuff. So I have a back log of work to do. Then when he leaves I would work on my own and send him stuff on the road. It was actually a nice way to record. I would take that over sitting for four months and all we do is work on this record. It gets fucking boring. This way at least we both got the chance to step away from it and get fresh ears and come back and go wait a minute......."
Reggie: Since Luke has done hundreds and hundreds of sessions when he comes in the Producer doesn't always if ever know exactly what they want. Luke figures out what to play immediately wasting no ones time. Such vast experience like this must come into play when he's doing his own album.
CJ: "Yes, it's about parts. I've been on records where he comes up with the parts. The guy will have CGF, CGF , A Minor CGF. That's what's on the page and Luke comes up with some guitar hook. The artist goes 'oh, my God. That's it.' And Luke's like 'well, how much? That's going to cost you. Because I'm a songwriter now.' For people to think that should be part of your gig then write it out then! If you don't need me to come up with the exact hook. So he's a hook meister. I have done a lot of that myself. So the two of us live for parts. Not just throwing shit around and jamming. I call it the China Syndrome. What I mean is there used to be this club called the China Club. They would get all these great musicians on stage to jam. To me it sounded like shit, a cluster fuck. Everybody's jamming and playing. You know what I'm talking about. Three chords or whatever. Everybody's showing off. Then they have to pick a song everybody knows like ' Mr. Magic' or some shit It was awful. We are more into parts. That was my reference to Beethoven. That shit is all written out before it's ever performed. So what's so organic about that? Nothing."
Reggie: How does the process work when you and Steve write a song together?
CJ: "First of all it always starts with me at the keyboard and him at his guitar. Either he'll start with a riff or I'll start with a riff and we'll go that sounds good! I'll get up a drum beat and we just start playing. We might play for twenty minutes with it in record for twenty straight minutes. We then go wait, that's thing was cool right there. Now we've got a germ. A lot of these songs he did go out on the road and wrote lyrics while I was working this out. Half as many of the songs we wrote lyrics together."
Reggie: So when you write songs together you are writing them from scratch? No preconceived ideas at all?
CJ: "Yes. As a matter of fact usually the music dictates where the lyrics go. We just go with the feeling. I think lyrically and musically you should be able to take the vocals off the record and still know what the song's about. One song that used to confuse me was 'What's Going On?' by Marvin Gaye. To me the music sounds like happy. Like he's walking down the street 'what's going on? What's going on?' It wasn't until I got older that I realized it was about what the FUCK is going on? That track doesn't match that to me. I LOVE Marvin Gaye! I'm not trying to slap Marvin Gaye. I've always tried to keep that synergy. I think it's starting with the music and bring in the lyrics later. I don't think there was one time where we said 'let's write a song about this or that.' We might have said 'let's write a ballad, we need a ballad.'
Reggie: So when you write a song do you know at the time if it is going to go over well in a live setting? Do you have to finish a song first before you know? How does that work?
CJ: "Never think about live. Figure it out later. Yes because there would be too many restraints there. If you try to make every song so it would sound good live you're limiting yourself too much. It's going to be tough to figure this stuff out. I think the best way for him to figure this out is to take a second keyboard player on the road. Like maybe...... ME!"
Reggie: I'm friends with Vince Gill and about 30 years ago he said to me 'do you know who Steve Lukather is? I told him I knew him from Toto but back then I wasn't as familiar with the depths of his work. Vince told me 'the next record you buy, Steve Lukather will have played on it.' I thought that was crazy because there are so many records made. I forgot what he said then I bought an Alice Cooper album. I thought there's no way Luke will have played on it. Sure enough Luke played on it! I thought that is insane that he could make such a bold statement and it came true.
CJ: "I think by one of the definitions of being a session player, again I came from a jingle background. We were doing six sessions a day in Chicago. They were only an hour long. You have to be number one, super quick. I was a synthesizer programmer, which is arguably the slowest thing of all the chairs. You have to program sounds, layer sounds, do over dubs. But the other thing is you have to be able to play EVERY style of music. You might have a Country spot. You might have a Jazz spot, a Big Band. The next thing you know you're doing it with the Chicago Symphony. You're very versatile. You learn how to play every different style of music, as a session musician. That's another thing Steve and I have in common. We can kind of go anywhere."
Reggie: I was at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles to see Luke in Ringo's All-Starr Band. I saw you there along with Steve Weingart, Renee Jones, David Paich, Trevor among many other of Luke's musical friends. First it's very cool that you guys all support each other and second your friend is in Ringo's All-Starr Band!
CJ: "I had done a record with Ringo in '93. We have a picture right here of Ringo. (Hanging on the wall there is a picture of the Beatles personally autographed by Ringo to CJ). Ringo is a wonderful cat! Yes the support of having all the cats there supporting Steve. I've gotten so much support personally from two of my heroes in David Paich and Steve Porcaro. There's nobody that I put higher on my hero list than those two guys. To become friends with those guys and get support and have them tell me how much they like these records that Steve and I are making, that's been amazing! It was great to see everyone there in support of Steve. One of the greatest moments was watching Steve and David who were sitting a few rows in front of me. When they played 'Hold the Line', the looks on their faces when they were watching Ringo and Steve was great! This tribe is a warm tribe. The true great players are so supportive of each other. There are very few assholes that are really great players."
Reggie: How about if I throw out the names of the people who played on this project and I get some comments from you?
Lenny Castro: "Oh my God! What a groove. Groove of life. The second you hit record! I don't think we ever punched in with him or replaced anything. He would just say 'I'm thinking of this part' and we would just say go and hit record. The way he locks with machine grooves is insane. A lot of the stuff Steve and I demoed together, I programmed the drums. I programmed everything to a grid. Then we went into the studio with a musician and replaced the parts. So what Lenny brings to that, how he plays along with a click. You'd never guess there was a click there.
Nathan East: "Oh WOW! What a beautiful player, man. He's hard to describe because he's so good. You forget how good he is because he makes it look so easy. He's got the big tone, the giant notes, it's beautiful. He brings his own direct box. He's got a beautiful bass. He played on "Rest of the World" and just killed it".
Tal Wilkenfeld: "She's almost scary she's so good. She just whipped right through this. I look forward to doing more stuff with her."
John Pierce: "Rock solid. With Luke and him, the two of together is the comedy machine. I can be a funny guy but with the two of them in a room I'm silent."
Lee Sklar: "Asshole! He Sucks! (kidding) We got Sklar to play a bass solo. Which I have to tell you that takes a lot. Lee is the best. There is nobody better on the planet."
Chad Smith: "Maniac! He is a really underrated drummer. People don't know his chops in different styles. He has been pigeon holed in his band. Which is a great band."
Greg Bissonette: "One of the nicest guys you could ever work with. He has his own thing on this record. "Transition" was the song we had him on. I love him for the odd time signatures. He can play anything."
Richard Page: "WOW! Stacking his vocals is just like butter. Putting butter on the track. Great."
Toss Panos: "I saw Toss at the Baked Potato with Lukes band. I think you were there that night. I couldn't take my eyes off that guy. Here's my thing about Toss. Toss is that skinny guy in prison that nobody fucks with. He is so fearsome when he plays drums. He is on of the most creative drummers I've ever heard in my life."
Steve Weingart: "I can't stand him! I hate him! (kidding) He can play better than me with his left hand than I can with my right hand! He's a freak. Fuck him!" (kidding)
Eric Valentine: "He's a freak, man! That guy has a vibe on his playing. He has a soul/rock mixture that's really interesting to me. That's why he's in Luke's band."
Renee Jones: "She was beautiful and she sang her ass off on this record. Beautiful, beautiful player and singer. She's a wonderful person."
Trevor Lukather: "He is a monster musician. He played guitar on "Right to Wrong" and came up with the basic riff on that song. As a matter of fact we've written two songs in the last couple of weeks."
Kristina Helene: "Kristina is an artist from Canada that I've been working with. Her and Steve love each other. I secretly put her on one of the songs without Steve knowing and he just flipped. She's a real talent. Kristina Helene."
Reggie: You've had an amazing career playing with Joe Cocker, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Ringo Starr, Tears For Fears recently, of course Steve Lukather and many more well respected artists. Could you talk to us a little about your career.
CJ: "Ya, I've had a kind of bucket list career. I've worked with people I've idolized through the years. I've been very lucky to do that. To have some impact on their music has been great. I think that came from, it's interesting, it goes back to Toto. I heard their first record and started reading about them. Then I realized that these guys were studio musicians. You didn't know that when you first heard your Toto record. I just thought it was a band. Well that's what I found out what they did. Then I found out I had been listening to them on other stuff. Silk Degrees (Boz Scaggs) and all that stuff. That's when I kind of decided I wanted to be a session player. That's what I wanted to do. I don't want to be in a band per say. Being a session player is what enabled me to play with all of these artists as an arranger and as a session musician. It all started when I moved to L.A., a guy named Dick Marx was my mentor. Richard Marx' dad. I was doing jingles in Chicago. He told his son 'you have to try this guy on something.' So I came out here and the first thing I did here was the track 'Right Here Waiting.' My first week out here. That's my demo basically. I owe a lot to Richard. He turned me on to Steve. I met Steve through Richard. I owe a lot to Richard but I owe more to his dad. So being a session player means you work with somebody different every day. That enabled me to rack up this great list of people."
Reggie: The word spreads. I think with Luke it was this cat comes in and in one take.....
Reggie: Exactly! Like you said how many songs did he help write without getting credit for?
CJ: "Ridiculous! And same here. I don't ever want to go into that or I'll start crying."
Reggie: Let's talk a little bit about your run with Spinal Tap. Spinal Tap the movie is one of the most iconic movies of our time. All of my Hard Rock, Heavy Metal and even my Country Music friends still to this day, quote, mimic and makes jokes about that movie. You've been with them for 20 years or so now.
CJ: "It's been fabulous. It's been an outlet for my alter ego because I do have a 'Rock Guy' deep down. I've always been into comedy my whole life. To finally meet and work with these guys was a dream come true. Of course that led me to doing Christopher's (Guest) movies, Harry's (Shearer) records and a lot of things with Michael McKean. It's been wonderful. Great travel. The back of that bus is the funniest place on earth. One of the best lines ever was when we were in Australia with Spinal Tap. We were doing the MTV Awards and the lady says (CJ in an Australian accent) 'how do you feel about the Music Business in Australia?' Nigel (Guest) says 'the same as in the States except for your career goes down the toilet in the opposite direction.'
Reggie: You keep your fans updated on what you're doing via Facebook. How important is that these days?
CJ: "I have fans?"
Reggie: You told me when you went to Japan with Tears For Fears people recognized you and knew your musical history.
CJ: "I'm kidding. It's very valuable for keeping everybody informed. Facebook for me started as a way of keeping my family informed. That way I don't have to call everybody. What are you doing? Well just go look at Facebook. There's the pictures. I saw how well Steve was doing on Facebook and his fans on the last record started coming over to my site. So I kind of felt a responsibility to keep everybody updated."
Reggie: Is there anything at all you wanted to add?
CJ: "Other than what an honor it is to work with Steve. It's a dream come true for me personally. The label, Mascot Records, they're very smart because they know what they have in Steve. They're Laissez-Faire. They're hands off. They're 'go do what you guys do.' There was no infestation, no marketing strategy, no here's what we're going to try for this radio. We just made music. After all these years of being session players it's actually the opposite where someone has something exactly in mind. That freedom is the greatest."
SteveLukather.com, October 26th 2012